Billy Napier discusses the Florida Gators opening spring football practice

by | Mar 8, 2024 | 0 comments

he Florida Gators have kicked off their spring practice on Thursday in preparation for the upcoming 2024 season. Head coach Billy Napier addressed the media after practice, sharing his thoughts on the team’s progression, individual players, and the dynamics within the team. Here’s everything Billy Napier had to say.


Opening statement:

Billy Napier: “I’ll tell you what, we’ve got a hungry group. We’ve got a group that’s got something to prove. When you really take a good look at things, this is the most experienced group that we’ve had. I think as a coach, as an organization, we want to try to build a veteran team. I would say that we have that. We’ve got young men that are incredible, that have a voice. I think the leadership on this team is the best it’s been. There’s character, there’s accountability. We’ve got a group that’s living life the right way. Their actions match up with their words. I think we’ve got the right combination of veteran leadership and young talent.

“It’s the best January and February that we’ve had since we’ve been here. It’s a ton of momentum heading into today. I think we saw that a little bit today. Good day. It’s the first day. It’s good to be back practicing football. Overall, I would say I was impressed with the leadership and accountability. Have a good group of veterans and very talented group of rookies. What questions we got?”

Graham Mertz in his second year

Napier: “The first thing I would say is he has the respect of the entire organization and the respect of his teammates. I think over time, his example – not only with his work ethic but I think as a competitor, has the toughness, the way he prepares, the way he treats people. Not just his teammates, but I would say all throughout the building. He’s a consummate pro. And you know, I think the quarterback sets the standard for the entire team and organization. And he’s done that. Him being back is a huge deal – not only for him personally and our team but for DJ, as well. I think just in general, his leadership, his voice, I mean, the guy’s – it’s a big deal for the Florida Gators that Graham Mertz is back to play quarterback. A ton of advantages. A ton of confidence there.”

Relationship of Mertz and DJ Lagway

Napier: “First of all, they both have character. They both have awareness and perspective. They can see the big picture. There’s no ego there. There’s a certain confidence and humility that both guys have. I think there’s an understanding of their role. They’ve been embraced that. I think they’ve worked alongside each other. Graham’s on a mission, came back with a purpose. Not only to increase his value personally but for our team to accomplish more. And then certainly DJ being a young player, being a rookie, there’s a ton to learn there. The advantage of DJ being able to observe Graham and certainly Graham’s embraced that mentorship and done a phenomenal job so far.”

Defensive staff changes

Napier: “Yeah, first of all, Will with the defensive backs and Gerald with the front, I think you’ve got two personalities that rub off on the group. There’s some urgency there. I do think they’re both phenomenal teachers and I think they’ve got high expectations for their players. I think we’ve seen improvement there. I think we also benefit from the experience of those groups. A lot of returning players in both of those rooms.

“And then I would say Ron Roberts, big picture, it’s originally his system. So there’s a ton of familiarity there. Ron was with me for two years and I think he’s maybe he’s four years removed, right? So it’s good to have him back. I think he’s got some familiarity with how we operate. We had a good February. The things that we did from a football standpoint, and he and Austin’s working relationship there, the mutual respect, that’s been healthy for us.”

The dynamic between Austin Armstrong and Ron Roberts

Napier: “Essentially you’re getting … Ron’s been a head coach for a number of years. He’s been a coordinator for a number of years. Austin was his graduate assistant the first interaction they had. Obviously Austin took his system and put his spin on it. Those guys, they have communicated with each other system since they departed. They’re having weekly conversations for the last few years. Ultimately they’re working together to build the installations, to build the scripts. Austin’s running the unit meetings, and Ron’s doing a good job of creating clarity for the coaches and really helping us to improve the fundamentals.”

Is Will Harris handling the entire defensive back unit and Austin’s kind of roaming around?

Napier: “Correct. Correct.”

On DJ Lagway:

Napier: “Yeah, man, I see a kid who loves to play and he’s fun to coach. He’s got unique ability – the size, the athleticism, the arm talent. But probably the best thing about him is just the work ethic, the desire to learn, the perspective and understanding and awareness that he knows he’s got a lot of work to do to get better. But finally to see him in a football setting and just let him go play. Just to see him smiling and having a good time. He loves the game, and that was very apparent out there today.”

Changes on the offensive line

Napier: “First of all, I think we added some really good pieces and we have some experience coming back. Really pleased with Jake Slaughter. His leadership, his example, he’s very mature. I think he’s established in that room kind of his expectations. His personality is rubbing off on that room. Austin is very much the same. Austin is obviously not able to participate coming back from the surgery. We’ve been able to move Damieon inside which I think is probably benefitting us and him. Knijeah Harris got critical experience last year and he’s been making great progress. Then the tackle pieces.

“I think that’s allowed us to move Bryce Lovett inside. Kam Waites has had a great offseason and I think he’s proven that he can play tackle. We know he can play guard. Crenshaw-Dickson, Devon Manuel, Fletcher Westphal, Rod Kearney’s had a phenomenal offseason and added a ton of lean mass. Probably the best and deepest group we’ve had. Offensive line is typically hard to say until we put the pads on but that group’s body has changed and I think they’ve had a really good offseason. Very pleased with that group so far.”

Goals for the spring:

Napier: “I think we’re just consumed with the work. I think we’re consumed with the improvement. Ultimately, we’re teaching concepts, we’re teaching situations, field zones, D&D[down and distance]. We’ve got a group of veteran players that need to continue to develop and try to play their best football in their career and then we’ve got rookies that we need to get into position to impact our team. I think it’s all about improvement. I think each individual player, each position group, each unit, they’re all in different places when it comes to that. Ultimately, as cliche as it sounds, it’s really one day at a time and we’re trying to get better.”

Russ Callaway’s new role

Napier: “I think Russ did a great job when we promoted Russ and put him on the field. Myself, and a lot of my close confidants, we’ve always felt strongly about Russ. He did a great job for our defense in the first year. I’ve been around Russ in the past when we were in Alabama together. He’s had success since then coaching at Samford, LSU, and the National Football League. Last year, to kind of observe him and some of his responsibilities, I thought he did a great job in not only preparing for meetings with me but also his interactions with the players. I think he’s got good understanding. It’s evident that he’s a coach’s son. He’s a leader. He’s done a good job in his role so far.”

Craig Fitzgerald deciding to leave

Napier: “First of all, Fitz did a great job for us. He gave us five weeks of great work, established some things. A ton of respect for Fitz as a man and as a coach. I think a unique dynamic there. One of your best friends gets a head gig there at BC and ten years with the guy. I get it. I think we were fortunate that we had built our staff in a way where there was collaboration. Coach (Tyler) Miles had done a phenomenal job with the programming part.

“Really, he and the rest of his staff giving Fitz insight into maybe where we were at as a program and what we needed. Tyler Miles was at the core of everything that we were doing. I think our players knew that. Our staff knew that. We didn’t want to blow it up and start over but more importantly we felt confident in Tyler relative to being able to do the job. He was, essentially, a huge part of what we were doing. Tyler’s got a strength and conditioning background and he’s got a performance science role. We promoted him and we’ve been able to surround him with really good people.”

The history of between Tyler Miles and Craig Fitzgerald

Napier: “I think that was a big part of Fitz being here. Tyler was a big resource when we were making the decision of which direction we were going to go. He knew Fitz, was familiar with Fitz. Then his insight into where we were at as a program, what needed to change, I think that was beneficial. I think when your players have confidence in the person and the methods and a system, when I’ve got a dozen players in my room, if they’ve got conviction about a coach and what they’ve observed as a leader, ultimately that’s what gave me confidence and my staff felt the same way. Tyler has been phenomenal since the first day he’s been here.”

Improving the defense

Napier: “Sure. Yeah, I think a lot of the decisions that we made in the offseason were, you know, a good look in the mirror. I think we’ve got to play, we all understand that if we’re going to play the brand of ball that we play which I would say is complementary football, you’ve got to be good on defense, right? So you know, we’ve made changes on the staff. And certainly, we’ve added some really good pieces.

“Now, we also return a ton of production at all three levels, as well. So I think it’s a combination of experience, some new leadership, some new voices there. And then I think a little bit better detailed, discipline, accountability. I think we’ve got players that are taking ownership. So, I’m hopeful some of the new pieces will work, but also, we’ve got confidence in the leadership change and some of the philosophies here.”

The return of Justus Boone from a torn ACL

Napier: “Yeah, Justus Boone is one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached. Made a ton of progress on the field as a player, but more importantly, as a person. He’s probably one of the realest young men that we have. He’s transparent, he holds people accountable, and he speaks the truth. And I think his growth as a person and as a leader has affected our team. Even though he didn’t play last year, I think he’s been impactful. So I’m hopeful, you know, his return to play will continue to be on process and he’ll have a chance to affect our team, not only off the field but on the field as well.”

The hype of freshman QB DJ Lagway

Napier: “Yeah. I think part of our job as a staff, my job as a head coach is to kind of help manage those expectations for him. He’s still a young person. That was his first college football practice. So I think the big thing to understand is just to kind of help keep him grounded, keep them focused on improvement. It’s a process. You know, one of the things I appreciate about him is the values, the way he was raised. He’s grounded. And I think he’s done a good job of handling some of the hype and expectations, he’s stayed focused on the things that are important.

“We need to help him do that. We all understand that he is talented, he’s had significant accomplishments. And we’re excited that he’s here. So I think the big thing is, we’ve got work to do between now and when we do play, right? He’s got to earn his role in the team, just like every other player. So, the good thing is that we’ve observed him for 10 weeks, and he’s been phenomenal. The detail, the discipline, the work ethic, and he’d be the first to tell you it hasn’t been easy. So, he’s earning respect one day at a time. Ultimately, that’s what it’s about.”

On how much he’s changed his spring practice routine

Napier: “A lot has changed. I think the workflow, how to help manage the time for your staff. And I think it’s every part of the offseason, every part of our football process and every part of our evaluation and recruitment process. I think people underestimate the crossover between evaluation and recruitment and football. And I think the major difference in our game is there’s been unbelievable change in the last two years in terms of evaluating players, how you acquire players, the level of attrition that you have each year. So I think phase two for us was significantly different this year because of that. So I would say we’ve adjusted every part of all that we do since we’ve been here because of that, the pace of the evaluation and recruitment due to the NIL, due to the portal.”

Time split for NIL and transfer portal

Napier: “Well, it depends on what time of the year. I evaluated players until 9:00 last night, watching receivers. We kind of have quotas and deadlines that we’re trying to hit. And I think ultimately for me, I got finished up yesterday with some work that I had left to do. So, every part of the building I think from an evaluation and recruitment standpoint is a little bit different because of that.”

On how the front office setup has helped him

Napier: “It’s helped in a huge way. Mark Robinson’s been outstanding. Just that direct line of communication with Florida Victorious, our current players, their parents, their representation. It’s a new world. We’re living in a new world. So it’s definitely helped me and I would tell you that for the first time, I think all of our systems are built. We’ve had quite a bit of change over the last couple of years. So it’s the first offseason where you’re not building a system right in the middle of it. So it’s been great.”

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